On Human Rights Violations and Memory Struggles in Peru

The New York Times recently ran an excellent story discussing the challenges facing Peruvian society, culture, and politics as the country continues to try to confront the past of a civil war that tore the world’s 20th-largest country apart in the 1980s and 1990s as leftist guerrilla movements and the Peruvian government entered into an increasingly escalating civil war that left civilian populations caught in the middle. As is the case with other South American countries that faced civil conflict and human rights violations in the latter half of the twentieth century, the issues confronting Peru provide a powerful reminder of the ways in which memory struggles continue to impact and affect society even decades after the violence “officially” ends.

Peru’s civil war began in 1980. That year, the country held presidential elections for the first time after twelve years during which the Peruvian military governed. The day before elections, five members of the Partido Comunista del Perú-Sendero Luminoso (the Communist Party of Peru-Shining Path, later known simply as Shining Path) burned ballots in a public display of protest. The Shining Path, a Maoist group founded by Abimael Guzmán with roots in the Andean highlands region surrounding Ayacucho, called for an open war against “imperialism” and the “bourgeois” democracy of Peru (hence the destruction of ballots on the eve of the 1980s election). Leaders and intellectuals in Shining Path sought cultural revolution and a dictatorship of the proletariat that they argued (or hoped) would lead to a worldwide revolution and the emergence of new, forms and understandings of democratic societies. While the movement proclaimed its goal to incorporate and fight for the Peruvian masses along class lines (even actively encouraging women to join its forces, a rare policy among guerrilla movements in the region at the time), although this broad support never materialized, and the movement counted upon only several thousand supporters in a country of more than 17 million citizens at the start of the conflict.

Periodic skirmishes took place from 1980 until the end of 1982, when the “Manchay Tiempo,” or “Time of Fear” (in Quechua and Spanish) began. Bewteen 1982 and the end of the 1980s, the Shining Path and other guerrilla movements targeted any and all individuals it associated with the Peruvian state, including police officers, mayors, teachers, and civil servants, many of whom were far from economic or political elites. In response, the government, then headed by president Fernando Belaúnde, opted for military intervention, leading to an escalation in violence from both the guerrillas and the military, with the Peruvian population caught in the middle. By 1985, 27 provinces were in a state of emergency, and over 5,000 people had died or been murdered in political violence that often targeted citizens who were not associated with either the government or the Shining Path. In a militarized state of exception, Peruvian armed forces arrested, murdered, and “disappeared” more than 1,000 peasants it suspected of having ties to the Shining Path and other emergent guerrilla movements (like the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru, named after the leader of a 1780 uprising in colonial Peru). The military destroyed any village that aided or even showed the slightest sympathy for the guerilla movements; in response, the Shining Path’s guerrillas murdered any who disagreed with it or whom it suspected of aiding the Peruvian government. As a result, by the end of the 1980s, tens of thousands of people had died at the hands of the guerrillas or the military, and entire regions were emptied as people tried to flee the violence. Although the Peruvian government captured Guzmán in 1992, the administration of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) continued to go after guerrillas and any it suspected of supporting it, thereby perpetuating human rights violations that ultimately landed Fujimori in prison for his role in state-sanctioned violence just as Guzmán was imprisoned for his role in guerilla-violence. By the end of the 1990s, the violence had noticeably wound down, with Fujimori’s exit from office (amidst evidence of electoral fraud and corruption) marking the end of the conflict for many (though isolated instances of violence continued, albeit not nearly on the scale as during the 1980s and early-1990s). Ultimately, Peru formed a truth commission that interviewed over 15,000 victims of political violence, finding that over 69,000 people had died in the civil strife between 1980 and 2000.

Although the truth commission completed its work, the legacies of the war continue to make themselves felt in society far beyond the ongoing periodic instances of small-scale guerrilla violence (though that violence is certainly not small to the victims). There continues to be significant support for Fujimori, whose daughter Keiko was nearly elected president in 2011. Additionally, a new generation of youth that has no memory of the “Time of Fear” is supportive of and seeing the Shining Path as a legitimate political party. And while Guzmán and Fujimori both serve time for their roles in the murder of Peruvian civilians, the question of justice for human rights abuses has not faded with time; indeed, new evidence continuously emerges that shows the extent of state violence and the military’s own use of summary executions in what had previously been seen as “heroic” acts, undermining and complicating narratives and understandings of the Civil War that framed the Shining Path as the group primarily responsible for violence. Thus, more than twelve years after the Truth Commission’s final report, Peru continues to struggle with memory and narrative as it deals with the  impact of violence and human rights violations on society and politics, confront the issue of if and how to assign culpability and/or prosecute past violators, and how to commemorate the recent past.

Of course, as several of us have discussed here, memory struggles are an important ongoing issue throughout Latin America. More than twenty years after the last military dictatorship in South America collapsed, the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay are still facing the challenges and struggles over if and how society and the state should remember, commemorate, ignore, or move on from the legacies of systematic human rights violations. Their own experiences in confronting the past may provide some important lessons and examples for Peru. However, Peru’s case from its Southern Cone neighbors is significantly different in three regards.

First, the political contexts were markedly different. Peru’s civil war took place during a comparatively open democratic system. By contrast,  the human rights violations in the Southern Cone in the 1960s-1980s took place in the context of  bureaucratic authoritarian dictatorships that did not hesitate to employ brutal forms of torture (including administering electric shocks to prisoners’ ears, mouths, and genitals; committing rape on both women and men; using simulated executions; sleep deprivation; random incidents of assault; and other mechanisms of torture) against anybody they considered to be threats to the state or society as “subversives.” Within these repressive dictatorships, military officials and soldiers tortured tens of thousands of individuals and murdered and “disappeared” tens of thousands more between 1954 and 1990. The governments even collaborated together to ensure that perceived “enemies” of one country who resided in another were arrested, tortured, and even killed. ] Certainly, these actions in some regards resemble those committed in Peru, and the use of states of exception and increased militarization in Peru and the facade of elections at the local level in the Southern cone make the differences between the two cases blurrier than a simple “democracy/dictatorship” dichotomy allows for. Nonetheless, these institutional differences matter, for they shaped the ways in which leaders of the respective countries could and did act against what they perceived as threats against the state (and the defenses of those actions). While Peru’s government did employ terror, murder, and “disappearances” like its southern neighbors, the existence of a democratically-elected civilian government there made it more difficult (though not impossible) for Peruvian presidents to employ the types of repression that the Southern Cone utilized.

The second difference rests in the nature of guerrilla movements in Peru and in the Southern Cone. As mentioned above, the Shining Path ultimately was able to mobilize several thousand troops in its war against the Peruvian state. By contrast, the openly repressive nature of the Southern Cone’s military regimes, combined with internal divisions and factions within leftist groups that split over how to fight and for what to fight, ultimately stunted the ability for large-scale guerrilla movements like the Shining Path to form.  As a result, the Southern Cone generally confronted a situation in which the more centralized, coherent, and larger forces of military regimes were able to use broad information networks, repression, and the sheer size of the national military to stamp out much smaller guerrilla movements. Indeed, Brazil’s largest rural guerrilla movement in Araguaia never counted on more than seventy or so members (and, in this regard, the experiences of radical leftists in Brazil did not differ much from their counterparts in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay), a far cry from the thousands of guerrillas in the Shining Path.

The third difference flows directly from the second one, and involves the impact of guerrilla violence on local populations. Because the guerrilla movements of the Southern Cone were much smaller than the Shining Path or MRTA in Peru, and because they were resisting repressive authoritarian regimes, the violence of these guerrilla movements generally did not target civilians. Certainly, many groups (including the guerrillas in Araguaia) tried to “educate” civilians and recruit local support from civilian populations, but specific acts against non-military populations were extremely rare throughout the Southern Cone. By contrast, the Shining Path, the MRTA, and other offshoots were sizeable enough and controlled enough territory not only to directly challenge the Peruvian state, but to inflict a much broader and deeper level of violence against civilian populations that it deemed “unsupportive” of the guerillas’ demands. Thus it was that thousands of civilians unaffiliated either with the guerrillas or with the government died at the hands of the Shining Path, an experience that civilian populations of the Southern Cone by and large were spared from.

If one wants to find a useful point of comparison for the types of violence Peruvian peoples confronted during the civil war, the place to look is not to Peru’s south, but to its north. In terms of violence and the context of human rights violations, Peru much more closely resembles Colombia than it does the bureaucratic dictatorships of the Southern Cone. Since 1964, Colombia (like Peru) has faced a protracted civil war between guerrilla movements (in this case, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, and other offshoots) and Colombian armed forces,as well as right-wing paramilitary groups. Like Peru, Colombia has been engaged in an open armed civil struggle for decades even while successfully maintaining continuity in relatively open democratic processes and institutions; like Peru, the guerrillas in Colombia could count on a larger memebership than guerrilla movements in the Southern Cone, and thus could more directly impact the lives of civilians not directly involved in the struggle (especially in the countryside); and like Peru, Colombian civilians allied neither with leftists nor with the government have nonetheless witnessed basic human rights violations at the hands of the opposing forces, with tens of thousands of civilians dead in the armed struggle. Certainly, there are significant differences between the two, including Colombian guerrilla movements and paramilitary groups alike having direct ties to the drug trade and the role of US corporations, most notably Chiquita, that provided financial support to right-wing death squads. Yet in terms of increased militarization in a (relatively) democratic context, in terms of the types of guerrilla institutions and mobilization, and the impact on society (including death tolls), and in terms of the impact on a variety of social sectors throughout the country, Peru’s recent past more closely resembles that of Colombia than of the military regimes of the Southern Cone.

That is not to say that the memory struggles of the Southern Cone have nothing to offer in terms of understanding the issues Peru is confronting or how the country confronts its past. Indeed, in broad strokes, the recent memory struggles and quests for justice in the Southern Cone point us towards some of the issues that Peru confronts today. Like their counterparts in the Southern Cone did (and continue to do), Peruvian citizens still face difficult questions over issues of human rights violations, memory, and public commemoration and/or memorialization. Like their counterparts in the Southern Cone did (and continue to do), Peruvian citizens still face difficult questions over issues of human rights violations, memory, and public commemoration and/or memorialization, questions on how they should mark the past and remember it, and why.These are not meaningless, esoteric issues, either; as numerous scholars across a variety of fields have suggested, questions of memory cut to the heart of issues of nation and historical narrative in Latin America in the twenty-first century. They tell us what countries value in their national narrative; they tell us who is included or excluded from shaping that narrative; they tell us what potential counter-narratives exist or may emerge, and from whom; they establish new hierarchies and networks of power within national politics and society; they shape and define national political processes not just in the past, but in the present sand future as well.

For these reasons, it is worth paying attention to Peru as it continues to confront its past. Because while the historical contexts and the legacies of violence in Peru may be unique, the way it faces that past and constructs society going forward can tell us much more about memory struggles and the legacies of violence (state and guerrilla) on societies decades after the last shots are fired.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
This entry was posted in Alberto Fujimori, Alfredo Stroessner, Argentina, Argentina's Military Dictatorship (1976-1983), Augusto Pinochet, Brazil, Brazil's Military Dictatorship, Chile, Civil Conflict in the Americas, Colombia, Drugs and the Drug Trade in the Americas, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionárias de Colombia (FARC), Guerrilla Movements in Latin America, Human Rights Issues, Human Rights Violations, Impunity, Memory Struggles, Military Dictatorships, Multinational Corporations in the Americas, Paraguay, Paramilitary Groups, Peru, Peru's Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), Police Violence, The "Disappeared", The "Left" in Latin America, The "Right" in Latin America, The Cold War in Latin America, Torture, Uruguay, Uruguay's Military Dictatorship (1973-1985), Violence in the Americas. Bookmark the permalink.